Citizens committee begins reviewing Lafayette finances

A new citizens committee has begun studying the city-parish’s finances to figure out how local government can maintain strong police and fire departments, build new roads and meet other financial challenges in the coming years.

The Future Needs/Funding Sources Committee, formed last week by the City-Parish Council, held its first meeting on Wednesday.

The group of five people is expected to come up with recommendations by January.

Three council members also sit on the committee but will serve only in an advisory role and will not vote on recommendations.

The committee will have full access to budget information and all city-parish department heads, council Chairman Kevin Naquin said.

“This doesn’t happen often where the citizens and the community can open up the book,” he said.

The committee members are:

Jason El Koubi, president and CEO of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce.

Chad Hanks, a farmer and chairman of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority board of commissioners.

Scott Hayes, with 705, a local young professionals group.

Jerry Prejean, of Iberia Bank.

Sarah Walker, who had served on a similar committee that examined funding possibilities for facility upgrades and education programs for the Lafayette Parish school system.

Councilmen Naquin, Jay Castille and Don Bertrand will serve in advisory roles.

The initial meeting Wednesday was brief, mainly for introductions and to lay out ground rules and hash out a meeting schedule.

Naquin said his hope is the new group can approach city-parish government’s finances from a citizen’s perspective and develop workable solutions that would then be brought to the council for consideration.

“How do we fund today’s operations within our budget, and what are our future needs?” Naquin said.

Castille said the idea of forming a group with no elected officials is to remove political influence from the process and deal with the practical realities of the budget.

“You can’t accomplish anything when you have politics involved,” he said.

Bertrand said he welcomes a fresh perspective from outside local government.

“We become so bogged down with what we’re doing that we can lose the pulse of the community,” he said.

Castille said there are no foregone conclusions about recommendations that might emerge from the committee.

Proposals for new taxes, while not off the table, should not be the focus, he said.

“That’s not the goal here,” Castille said.

Instead, he told committee members, there could be an opportunity to find better ways to work with existing revenue.

City-Parish President Joey Durel and some council members have said one frustration in wrangling with the latest budget is trying to match the city-parish government’s needs with existing sales and property taxes that are legally restricted for certain uses.

Some of those legal restrictions don’t always line up with the budgetary needs and Durel already has proposed one measure that he sees as a partial solution.

The council is scheduled to consider a proposal next month that would allow city-parish government to fund animal-control services with property tax revenue that is legally restricted to mosquito control operations and the parish health unit.

The Lafayette animal shelter and animal-control operations have a budget of more than $1 million that comes from Lafayette’s general fund because there is no separate tax for animal control, while the property taxes for mosquito control and the health unit have brought in millions of dollars more than needed in recent years.

The accumulated savings are expected to be at about $10 million by the end of this year, according to figures from city-parish government.

Voters approved the two taxes with the condition that the revenue could be used only for mosquito control and the health unit, but the extra money could be shifted to other areas of the budget if voters approve.

But other budget issues remain, including funding for the police and fire departments and the parks and recreation department.

Over the past two years, the City-Parish Council has considered and then pulled back two separate tax proposals — an increase in the parks and recreation property tax and a new half-cent sales tax for public safety.

When those tax proposals were taken off the table, the talk among Durel and council members was that city-parish government needed to step back and look at all of its needs as a whole rather than trying the pick away at the funding needs of each department.

To that end, Durel announced plans about a year ago at his annual “State of the Parish” to establish a blue ribbon committee to research city-parish governments financial needs.

Durel’s committee never materialized, and he said a few months after proposing it that he felt it would be a lost cause.

The budget likely was too complex for the average citizen to understand in just a few months, he reasoned, and anti-tax forces might frustrate the process.

The prior tax proposals and the abandoned “blue ribbon” committee came at a time when city-parish government had been repeatedly dipping into built-up savings from prior years to balance the budget because recurring tax revenue was not keeping pace with rising expenses.

The budget has stabilized a bit since then, in part because a strong economy is pushing up tax collections and in part because the 2013 budget stripped funding for some 80 vacant positions, many of those in the fire and police departments.

The citizens committee is scheduled to meet next at 11 a.m. on March 10 at the main city-parish offices on University Avenue.

The meetings are open to the public.